You Need Black Mesa! (Free Remake of Half-Life, Currently my GOTY 2012)

I love Half-Life.

It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest video games ever made, not simply because of its massive influence (it was the game that showed the world how scripted sequences could make games better--something which its sequel failed miserably to accomplish), but because it's still great.

I played Half-Life for the first time in 2007. I played Half-Life 2--the game that sat at the top of many peoples' "Game of the Decade" lists last decade--the following week. Half-Life handily outdoes its successor.

...and Black Mesa blows Half-Life out of the water.

That's no small blasphemy, I know. What I don't know is how a bunch of people from around the world managed to take one of the greatest, most influential video games of all time, and then improve on it. Black Mesa, from what I have played so far, may just be the greatest achievement in video game modding since Counter-Strike's launch.

In fact, it might be the best video game released this year.

Why?

Well, they changed things up. The game looks gorgeous--I'd argue it's better-looking than any game Valve has ever released--but it's deeper than that. Levels have been restructured. Rooms now make sense. It's not the random "well, this is probably shaped nice" of Valve's level design. Now, the Black Mesa facility feels like a real space.

Of course, one thing that helps with that are the scripted events.

While "scripted events" is generally used as code for "horrible, game-destroying things," it was also one of the major reasons Half-Life was so well loved. Video games, before Half-Life's release, had tried to create the feel of a living world, but even the brilliant simulation of Looking Glass's games was missing something. Half-Life's brilliant use of scripted events to make a world feel more real is the primary element that helped it go from being another corridor shooter to an adventure game.

Black Mesa has a lot of them, but unlike the anti-game antics of Half-Life's imitators, like Battlefield 3 (can't even jump into a hole without pressing a specific hole-jumping-into button) or Uncharted (it just loooves to take away camera control and make you watch a building collapse or whatever), they're much more subtle than that. They're about the guy near the end of your tram ride who bangs desperately on a door, trying to escape deadly radiation, or the houndeye that sits in front of a television, watching the static inquisitively.

Even Valve seems to have forgotten how to do scripted sequences. Black Mesa's developers? They do this stuff better than anyone I have ever seen. In their deft hands, scripted events flavor the world. You might miss some--only in talking to another player did I learn that players can, for instance, supply a man in a stall with toilet paper. I totally missed that the first time around, and in some other conversations, I've learned of dozens of other little things I missed.

One of my favorite bits was when a headcrab zombie started stumbling towards me, so I threw a flare at him, he caught on fire, and the sprinkler system turned on.

Oh. Right. Flares.

The game has changed, in some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worse.

The opening sequence has been changed. Now, instead of getting your crowbar immediately and fighting your way through the game without any real guidance, you find flares. Flares allow you to set zombies on fire, and for a while, you, and a guard buddy you meet, fight your way through Black Mesa's corridors. Not only does this guard reiterate your mission ("get to the surface"), but he helps ease you into the role of badass scientist, by being better at killing things than you are. It really brings the whole sequence into its own. You grow, in a way.

That's not the only change. I've just gotten to the area where I should have received a shotgun, but instead, I've gotten a revolver. I enjoy the pacing a lot more now; I felt pretty powerful when I got my hands on the shotgun for the first time, and now I'm being teased. The revolver, however, is wonderful and I love it. While I won't spoil its introduction, the crowbar is your first non-flare weapon, and I love the way it was given to the player (though I would have preferred that you kill headcrabs first, not zombies).

Another positive change are the secrets. Now, if you do a bit of exploring, you can generally find supplies. Take, for instance, the massive lift with headcrabs raining from above. Near the bottom, if you jump onto a ledge and go through the half-open door, you'll be able to enter a security booth and pick up some supplies. Black Mesa has more of these secrets in store for the player, and they're quite welcome.

Also enjoyable are the various extra snippets of dialog you can hear throughout the game, some of which are really amusing. Unfortunately, Black Mesa apparently has only one female voice actress, and she gets tiring pretty quickly. However, that's pretty acceptable. I have a few other complaints:

First and foremost, the game tries to bring Half-Life 2's continuity into the game, by making two of the scientists you meet Eli and Kleiner. This is pretty grating, because Half-Life and Half-Life 2, no matter how much Valve insists, just do not work together all that well, any more than Portal and Half-Life worked together (remember how Portal 2 totally ignored Portal 1's Half-Life connections? It's because the two were just two different to ever be related--this may also be one of the reasons that Episode 3 has been delayed for so long).

The next problem is that you have to crouchjump a lot. Apparently, the jump height has been reduced. One section of the game--right before you meet your first bullsquid, actually--involves jumping on a series of pipes to get around a collapsed bridge. You have to crouchjump for all of them. They should have implemented a System Shock 2-esque mantling system or simply kept the player's jump height a bit higher.

Also frustrating? I have yet to come across my favorite two favorite scientist models (Einstein guy and guy-who-inspired-Kleiner), fire extinguishers don't explode when you shoot them (all this attention to detail and they didn't think of this?), and, of course,flares aren't weapons, even though they absolutely should be.

Yeah. Not exactly the biggest complaints, you might have noticed.

The gunplay feels nice, the options are fantastic, the game looks great (even when taking damage!), the attention to detail is intense...

While I haven't yet gotten to test whether or not cockroaches hunt by smell or bullsquids eat meat (they do in the original game), it seems that the Black Mesa team has not only captured the attention to detail of the first Half-Life, but improved upon it. Black Mesa is the evolution of the late-90s shooter, rather than the devolution of 2003's Call of Duty and 2004's Half-Life.

Black Mesa is the first truly positive evolution in traditional FPS design since Monolith's 2005 horror shooter, FEAR. That it's free makes me worry that developers won't pay attention to why it's so great--they have a hard enough time imitating the intelligent design of shooters like Halo or FEAR--but that's alright.

Black Mesa is, quite possibly, the best video game released in 2012.

--

EDITS, AS I CONTINUE TO PLAY

1. Wow, lots of little clever bits here. There's an area you have to climb up to, but then, Assassin's Creed/Darksiders style, things drop down so if you fall, you don't lose your progress.

2. They foreshadow really well. If you've ever seen Egoraptor's video on Mega Man and how genius it is, you know about how showing gamers what to expect is a great way to train them. This game does that for the tripmines and gun lasers, which, as Cybershell pointed out in the world's greatest Let's Play, was irritating before.

3. HOLY SHIT THE MARINE AI IS GENIUS. Wow. I haven't felt this challenged since STALKER or FEAR. One guy distracted me while another ran around behind. They dodge really well. They're actually pretty hard, even on normal difficulty.

4. Hm. There's a bit where you hear soldiers talking, and you can drop down and kill them. I like doing that, because they're assholes. Apparently you can't do that here.

5. Immediately following, you meet a scientist in his room, talking about the lambda complex and a rail system. Cool. Unlike some people, "On a Rail" is a level I really enjoyed (can't wait to see how they've improved it). Unfortunately, he also does the "you can trust them--you can trust all of us" bit of dialog from the original Half-Life.

Here's the thing: that dialog should come further on in the game, like in the original. I'm pretty sure no one said it until well after Questionable Ethics, and I haven't even gotten to Blast Pit or On a Rail yet. The idea is that the game makes you feel like you're really desperate and alone, so when someone says it to you, it's extremely reassuring. It's dialog you NEED. Here, it's played really early into the game, and just doesn't work as well.

6. Wait. Blast Pit? I could have sworn that he talked about a rail system, so why am I doing Blast Pit?

OH WELL, BLAST PIT IS ONE OF THE BEST LEVEL IN SHOOTER HISTORY

This could all change by the time I've beaten it, mind you, so take it with a grain of salt.

You can download it and its wonderful soundtrack here.